Checks and Balances - part 2

nobody checking and fewer balancing

By now it was hot and humid again, so before crossing the boulevard to get to the overpass I went into the store to get a couple of cold beers to celebrate the end of my transition from the soybeans and corn of Iowa to the huge freightyard of Minnesota. As I expected there were no "microbrews" here, just Lite this and Lite that, but they were cold and that's all that mattered. The guy at the counter was right out of the movies as a Midwesterner it was "yeah, you betcha" and "Sure, you betcha" after everything he said. I almost lost it and began to laugh out loud but I held it together until I got outside, anyway.

A block away the road crossed the yard on a long overpass, and I was able to stand there and get a good sense of the layout, realizing that the departure yard was below me after seeing a caboose on the end of a long string of cars. I would just have to "read" the cars as best I could to find something that appeared to be going a long way. I decided to stash my pack under the bridge and come back up without it so my plans wouldn't be so obvious to people driving by.

Upon reaching the underside of the bridge I found two other guys who appeared to be waiting for a train as well, so I decided not to abandon my pack after all, but scout the yard as best I could from my vantage point under the bridge. I walked over to say hi and found out that they were waiting to go West too, but were waiting for a third person who hadn't arrived yet. They were out riding around here and there like I was and didn't seem to be in any sort of hurry. They also cautioned me about leaving my gear out where it could be seen from the ground below apparently the Bull sometimes drives by but if it's sunny and bright outside he can't see anyone hanging out at the very top of the embankment because it all in a dark shadow. They explained to me that one of them had walked down to the road that the Bull uses and they couldn't see anything under the bridge, so we stashed our gear as far back as we could and kept a close eye on the road below.

I was glad to see that they were already working on a six-pack so I didn't feel guilty about bringing out my beers, which I powered down in a matter of minutes to get the full effect of their coldness. The remainder of the afternoon was spent drinking and reading the hobo tags that littered the underside of the bridge. Emboldened by the consumption of two beers in what seemed like a matter of minutes, I stood up to add my own thoughts to the others that came before me, and I noticed that one of the other guys was doing the same. They pretty much stayed to themselves under one end of the bridge and I did the same under the other, but occassionally the younger of the two would come over and ask me a question about which trains were going where and how long it took to get there, but I had to speak in generalities because I didn't know much about this end of the "High Line", as the route from Seattle to Minneapolis was known. I had seen the same trains as were being made up here but on the western end of the route, so I could only guess at their departure times.

I told him about reading the cars on a string to try and figure out where they might be heading by the type of car and the reporting marks on the side, and even studying the ground along the yard tracks for any indication of what type of cars were usually found there. We went over various markings on cars and I could rattle off the western roads and he was good at identifying eastern roads, but that's about as far as it progressed, as we both realized that it all boils down to which cars are on which track at what time of day. We both returned to our respective "camps" and I brought out the first of several bottles of White Port to get "in character".

I was awakened from a nap by the arrival of the guy that the other two guys were waiting for. He dropped his gear next to theirs and from what I could make out he heard that some power was coming down to hook onto a string of cars headed west. The younger guy hurriedly came over to me to confirm what I thought and we all began to gather up our gear. I had forgotten which string had the caboose on so I told them that I'd walk up above and take a look. They thanked me and said they'd watch my gear, so I climbed up to the roadway and walked over to the middle of the bridge. The caboose was still there, but the string next to it now had a caboose on it as well, so I returned to the underside of the bridge after carefully counting the tracks to the two strings. We discussed the best strategy to use here if we waited under the bridge to see which of the two strings of cars the engines backed down to there might not be much time to make our way over to them and find a ride, so we decided that we'd all leave now and walk over until we were between the two strings to look for rides on either one, and once we heard the air build up we'd know which string was going to leave first.

Just as we had reached the bottom of the embankment we heard the power approaching, so back up to the top we all went so the outbound crew wouldn't see us. Waiting until the engines passed I noticed that my t-shirt was soaked from the effort of walking down the embankment and almost running back up. I couldn't wait to be on a moving train with the wind blowing by, not to mention getting to the cool, moist West Coast. After the engines went by we all cautiously descended again and made our way over the intervening strings of cars to what we hoped would be "our" train.

Climbing up, over, and down a half dozen times was made all the more difficult by the food and wine I had recently added to my pack, and I secretly wished that White Port was available in plastic bottles. Arriving at the first string of probable cars I was relieved to see familiar looking reporting marks, and relieved even more to see several grainers facing the "correct" way. The other guys continued over to the next string and we all began to walk the train at a measured pace, and I'd peek under the cars every so often to keep abreast of the other group. Every so often we'd meet at a coupler to exchange information on where the open boxcars were, and as we were getting close to the front of one of the strings we could see the engines up ahead backing down on the track with the string of cars to my right, so I climbed over once again and followed the other guys back to what they said were three clean, open boxcars in a row.

Sure enough there were three Seattle & North Coast boxcars with both doors open, so my companions climbed into the first one and I walked back to the next car, which through some stroke of luck had a huge piece of relatively clean cardboard inside. I set my gear down but didn't really begin to relax until I felt the gentle jolt of the engines coupling up and the reassuring sound of air being pumped into the airlines. After a celebratory pee out the doorway I returned to my cardboard camp to roll out my sleeping bag, take off my boots, and continue working on the White Port. I wasn't concerned about whether or not we would really leave town, or if we'd veer off on some diverging route in the middle of the night, or if it took a week to get to the West Coast I was just living in the moment, and at that moment the White Port tasted pretty darn good...